Prometheus – review

Ridley Scott's return to the Alien universe is grandiose and muddled – with a scene-stealing Michael Fassbender performance

Ridley Scott has counter-evolved his 1979 classic Alien into something more grandiose, more elaborate – but less interesting. In place of scariness there is wonderment; in place of tension there is hugely ambitious design; in place of unforgettable shocks there are reminders of the original's unforgettable shocks. There are also some shrewd and witty touches, and one terrifically creepy performance from Michael Fassbender, who steals the film with the chilling, parasitic relentlessness of that first gut-bound alien. The original took place in space, where no one can hear you scream; in this film, no one can hear you scream above the deafening, kettle drum-bothering orchestral score.

The freaky-dystopian conspiracy spirit of 1970s sci-fi survives, sort of. At one point, someone produces a squeeze-box allegedly once owned by Stephen Stills, but doesn't actually play anything on it. But the subversive spirit has now been melded with the blander aesthetic of the top-dollar multiplex event movie. First time around, the ship was a claustrophobic confine whose crew would look tense and unwell in that stark uplight that seemed to beam off every work surface. Now, the characters are forever making excursions outside the ship into a colossal CGI alien landscape, a digital universe unavailable to Scott 30-odd years ago; although this world has a classical look, like the photorealist cover designs of strange crystalline worlds on SF paperbacks.

Prometheus is part prequel, part variation on a theme: the object is ostensibly to explain the presence in Alien of a strange humanoid-corpse with a hole blasted open in his stomach. This the film does get round to explaining, after many intestinal convolutions. What it also does is return us to the world of Erich von Däniken's 1968 bestseller Chariots of the Gods, about humankind being bred on Earth aeons ago by spaceman-aliens. The crew of the spacecraft Prometheus are basically on a mission in 2094 to establish this; no one mentions Von Däniken, perhaps not surprising as he has been pretty much forgotten even in 2012.

Reading on mobile? Click here to watch Ridley Scott and Noomi Rapace discuss making Prometheus

Noomi Rapace is well cast as Dr Elizabeth Shaw, an intense and driven scientist who nonetheless has absorbed a calm religious faith from her father and always wears a cross around her neck. Her creationist views are never seriously challenged – except for one perfunctory complaint that she is going against "centuries of Darwinism" – and she is galvanised when, with her colleague and lover Dr Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), she discovers ancient cave paintings in the Isle of Skye showing humans worshipping a specific star-constellation. Other cave paintings in the world duplicate this; astronomers find the constellation in question and soon, Dr Shaw and Dr Holloway are on board a spacecraft heading there, a mission bankrolled, in the time-honoured manner, by a shadowy corporation. Charlize Theron is the icy, black jumpsuit-clad corporate commander Meredith Vickers; Idris Elba is the rebellious captain, and there are some feisty, low-level tech guys.

Upstaging everyone is Fassbender, who provides the film's real glint of steel, while decentring its dramatic focus. He plays David, a robot who has been designed to look like a highly convincing humanoid, avowedly to avoid scaring or upsetting the crew. While they have been cryogenically frozen during the two-year flight, David has been gliding about like a head waiter keeping everything on board shipshape. But he is – again, more time-honoured tradition – a robot who might decide he has a mind of his own. Fassbender's David is blond; I think his eyelashes may be blond, too, and his English accent has a kind of refrigerated unctuousness. With his eerily Aryan look and stiff-armed walk, he's channelling C3PO and David Bowie's Man Who Fell to Earth. David also, like Wall-E, enjoys old movies, and he models his supercilious manner on Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. As in other performances, Fassbender's lower jaw has a tendency to clench, as if suppressing rage or disgust: here it becomes an opaque, robotic mannerism of veiled threat.

When the crew land on that far-off planet, they make a staggering discovery, which for Dr Shaw is pretty much a conceptual orgasm, a moment of almost sexual congress with the unknown. Of course, her troubles begin when they return to the ship. The spacecraft on Alien had the Conradian title of Nostromo. (With his deployment of Lawrence of Arabia, Ridley Scott may also be hinting, at two or three removes, at David Lean's final unrealised plan to film Nostromo, and even be claiming some David Lean epic grandeur for himself.) Prometheus is the titan who was tortured by the gods for giving fire to the humans – but here it is the humans who are tortured and consumed by a new and terrible kind of fire.

It is a muddled, intricate, spectacular film, but more or less in control of all its craziness and is very watchable. It lacks the central killer punch of Alien: it doesn't have its satirical brilliance and its tough, rationalist attack on human agency and guilt. But there's a driving narrative impulse, and, however silly, a kind of idealism, a sense that it's exciting to make contact with whatever's out there.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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